I don’t know if you’ve read much about the new Batman game, Gotham Knights. I’ll call it a Batman game for simplicity. The truth is – for what we have been told – this is actually a batman game where you don’t play as batman. Batman is dead, so you play as four members of the larger Bat-family. In fact, this is probably what you’ve been reading if you’ve been reading about the game.
This is all super interesting, I think. Gotham Knights is already a Batman game not made by Rocksteady, and now it doesn’t have the main character either, from what we’ve been told. I’m intrigued to see the results, but all the discussion has also got me thinking about the first Batman game in this series, Arkham Asylum, and how you definitely play Batman in that, except when it comes to my favorite moment in the game, which is also the point where the relationship between the player and the on-screen avatar becomes a bit more complicated.
First of all, yes, many games complicate this relationship. You control the characters in GTA, for example, but when you drive into a mission, they’re talking and saying things that are likely to surprise you, the player, so there’s room for reflection. You are the people on the screen, and you should be, because they tell you when to duck, when to reload. But they have a part of life that you can never control, because if you did, the narrative of the game would not work.
Let’s go back to Batman. Batman talks to Oracle and whatever, but that’s fine for the most part, because you’re the one who sneaks him through the vents and decides what order to take down the goons in. But then at a certain point in the game, Batman meets Bane, and after defeating Bane, he’s worried about something. Like the secondary doctor in a million soap operas, he decides have to do more tests. You need to get to the Batcave. But he’s stuck in Arkham, right?
This is it: my favorite moment in Arkham Asylum, in any of the Batman games, in fact. You go to Dead Man’s Point in North Arkham, a charming piece of theater that takes you away from the main plots of the narrative and also gives you a melancholic vision of Gotham, separated by water. You dive, or rather Batman dives, because we’re in the territory of the scene, from the edge of a cliff and then, hiss, you’re being scanned by lasers, and a rock wall reveals a secret door. You walk through an electrically lit hallway, through a wall of shimmering water, another delightful moment, and wow! Are you here. A second Batcave on Arkham Island.
There are many reasons why this works. The theatrical staging of revelation. The growing awareness that Rocksteady is so comfortable with the world of Batman that he is willing to create elements of it of his own. The sheer star power of actually being in such a sacred place. All very well. But I think the real reason it works is much more complicated. The Batcave reveal works because Batman knows something you don’t: that he has a cave on this island in the first place. He knows something you don’t know. Which is weird, because aren’t you Batman in the first place? Isn’t that the premise of the whole game?
Years ago I was taught this concept: dramatic irony. Dramatic irony, I was told, is one of the most complex tools a writer can use. Dramatic irony occurs when the people in the audience know more than the people on the screen. To use a simple Hitchcockian example: two people are talking at a table, but only the audience knows that there is a bomb under the table and is counting down to the explosion.
Dramatic irony! At the table level, it’s all talk about vacations and how the weather is. Under the table, however, we, the audience, are shouting: get out! Stop talking! You don’t even tip! There’s a bomb, idiots.
Okay. Dramatic irony rarely needs a bombshell to work. And it’s rarely used just to build suspense. Maybe a character has had an affair and we know it, but his partner doesn’t. Maybe the child came home from school and we know what he did on that test, but the parents don’t. Maybe we know they won class president or got expelled!
The Batcave sequence works because of a kind of reverse dramatic irony. Batman knows something and he hasn’t shared it with us. All this time he has known that there is a Batcave on the island. But we didn’t need to know until now, even though we are him. Something like. So he has this inner life that we’re not aware of. There is a him without us.
You also get this in a lot of movies – caper movies are particularly rich in it. The audience thinks Danny Ocean’s scam failed, but only because Danny didn’t let us in on the true nature of the scam in the first place. We followed him until he entered the Bellagio’s vault, and then he pushed us to the side a bit and performed solo magic without us.
But you know where I’m going with this: okay, but we never really thought we were Danny Ocean until that point. The film exploits a separation between protagonist and audience that everyone understands from the start. Arkham Asylum is a bit different. The games are a bit different.
And I’m tempted to say that Batman is a bit different overall. We’re not just playing a character in these games, we’re playing a character who already has a history, who is already deeply famous, who is already building up in lore. The greatness of Arkham Asylum, then, is that it doesn’t always allow us to be Batman; sometimes we can be close to Batman while he does something cool that surprises us. Maybe Gotham Knights is being drawn from a deeper well after all.
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